If any period in American history deserves re-examination today, it’s The Great Awakening.
Following a similar movement in 18th century Britain, America’s Great Awakening came in the first half of the 19th century. Most of our popular Protestant denominations – Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Mormons – had their heyday then.
But the most historically important group were the Millerites. They initially followed a man named William Miller who claimed to know when the Second Coming of Christ would happen, followed by the end of the world. It didn’t happen. But The Great Disappointment led, in turn, to the creation of 7th Day Adventists.
A version of Millerism has been alive in America ever since. It was the primary reaction to the 1960s. Evangelical and fundamentalist risings occurred in both Catholic and Protestant churches. This was accompanied by rising political involvement, the “Religious Right” that stood behind Reagan, the Bushes, and Trump.
Liberals who pretend that current events are unprecedented, that mass denial of reality hasn’t happened here, haven’t studied the Great Awakening. That, too, was a rejection against elites. Its political tool was Andrew Jackson, who owned slaves, expelled Indians, treated women like dirt, and destroyed the economy along with the Second Bank of the United States. It’s no coincidence that Trump put Jackson’s picture over his desk. His is the same type of movement.
Jacksonian Democracy dominated America for 30 years. It was only broken by its inherent contradictions, its celebration of slavery and the collapse of that economic model. But until recently most state Democratic parties still hosted “Jefferson-Jackson Day” dinners. The racism toward native Americans and Mestizo Hispanics, the racism toward freed blacks, the misogynistic tendencies of the Gilded Age, they all outlived the war that brought down the movement.
They remained important because Reconstruction failed. Having won the war, Republicans rejected U.S. Grant and endorsed Henry Grady. The South slept until air conditioning forced a reckoning, but even that reckoning has proven half-hearted. They first gave us Populists, then segregationists.
These are the ghosts that have arisen in our time. Trump Republicans reject reality just as thoroughly as Jacksonian Democrats did. They reject modernism as thoroughly as William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey trial. Their white supremacy, their desire for race war, are on display for all to see. They won’t be easy to put down.
But they can be, finally. They can be buried because a knowledge-based economy demands it. They can be buried because human capital is now the gating factor to growth. They can be buried because hatred of black people, brown people, immigrants, women, gays or even the disabled is a luxury we can no longer afford. They can be buried because most Americans, even many who call themselves Republicans, understand this.
Defeating Trumpism, however, requires that we reckon with his historical antecedents. It requires a more direct confrontation with the Religious Right. It demands we confront the Great Awakening.